Saying they “delayed our action plan,” Rick Snyder lays the blame for the Flint water disaster at the feet of “career civil servants” who cared more about process than people

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You have to give him credit for having chutzpah. It took him a few days, but our Governor, with he help of multiple consultants and a few top flight PR firms, is attempting not just to deflect blame for what happened in Flint, but actually turn the deadly public health crisis into an anti-government parable that serves both his purposes, and those of his wealthy donors.

Snyder’s first so-called apology to the people of Flint came during the holidays, between Christmas and New Years. It came by way of press release. “I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” he said in the release. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience, because Flint is not the only city that has an aging infrastructure.”

As far as apologies go, it wasn’t very satisfying.

“Hey,” he might as well have said, “It sucks that your kids have brain damage, but we’re going to learn from it… Happy New Year.”

He clearly didn’t know at the time just how big this story was going to get.

Within a very short time, though, the Flint water crisis became international news. Before Snyder knew what was happening, Cher was calling for his public execution and his poor handling of the public health crisis had become a subject of discussion on the presidential campaign trail. People not just in Michigan, but around the entire country, began to refer to this as the defining moment of his administration, likening his less than speedy response to the disaster in Flint to the Bush administration’s handling of hurricane Katrina… Clearly Snyder had to say something more than, “We’re going to learn from this,” but what?

I should add here, for those of you who have never had dealings with folks who work in public relations, that there’s a sub-specialty within the field known as “crisis communications.” People engaged in this line of work study disasters and how both people and companies either survive them, or get torn apart by them. They study things like the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, and they convey the lessons learned from such events to their clients. While I, of course, have no way of knowing what Governor Snyder was told, I think it’s highly likely that someone in this profession made it very clear to him that, if he didn’t show some emotion and take full responsibility, that he would not survive this. [They likely also told him that, in time, he could begin to shift the blame away from himself, but we’ll get to that in a minute.] And that’s exactly what he did.

Telling the people of Flint that they “deserve better,” a teary-eyed Snyder took the occasion last week, during his State of the State address, to say “I’m sorry most of all that I let you down. You deserve better.” And, for the most part, my sense is that it worked. People liked that he took ownership of the problem, and pledged to do whatever it took to “fix it.”

Of course, at just around the same time that he was telling the people of Flint, “(This is) a crisis you did not create, and could not have prevented,” he was also laying the groundwork for phase two of the communications plan.

On the same day that he gave his State of the State speech, Snyder also talked with Ron Fournier of the National Journal, telling him that, while he does take full responsibility, it should be noted that this problem really happened because of long-serving government employees whom he had never even met. “This was a case where we had people who had been in these jobs for years, (who) hadn’t gotten the change memo yet saying there’s got to be a better way of doing things,” Snyder said in the interview. “So they kept doing things the way they have.”

So this terrible thing that we’re still watching unfold in Flint didn’t happen because Snyder fundamentally changed the way state government was run, removing checks and balances at every level, and giving unelected Emergency Managers free rein over cities to do things like slash costs by giving people untreated river water to drink, but in spite of it. This happened, according to Snyder, because, try as you might, you just can’t fix everything “when you come in from the outside.” [God knows how bad things could have gotten in Flint, had Snyder not been out Governor. There would probably be bodies in the streets right now.]

So the problem wasn’t that he, by employing his brilliant business mind, and taking advantage of every loophole at his disposal, had created the least transparent and accountable state government in the entire country, but that not everyone in government got “the memo” that they were supposed to do more with less, and be more accountable, despite the culture of unaccountability all around them… Makes sense, right?

Before we go any farther, I should mention that, as of right now, few seem to buy Snyder’s revisionist take on where responsibility lies for the disaster in Flint. The following clip comes from yesterday’s Washington Post, where opinion writer Dana Milbank made it very clear who was at fault.

(T)he Flint disaster, three years in the making, is not a failure of government generally. It’s the failure of a specific governing philosophy: Snyder’s belief that government works better if run more like a business…

Snyder undertook an arrogant public-policy experiment, underpinned by the ideological assumption that the “experience set” of corporate-style managers was superior to the checks and balances of democracy. This is why Flint happened…

Unwilling to accept that narrative, Snyder has begun to double down on this notion that the problem in Flint was caused by government employees engaged in “business as usual.” [By the way, I don’t know why people on television are letting Snyder get away with saying that this was a result of people in Flint engaged in doing “business as usual,” when, to my knowledge, no one in Flint civil service had ever poisoned the entire city before.] And, toward that end, he’s beginning to pepper his speeches with a few phrases that must have tested well with focus groups. My favorite is “career civil servants.”

Here’s footage of Snyder on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, telling us how this was the work of “career civil servants” who were too caught up in regulations and technical reports to just do the right thing. [Mentions of “career civil servants” happen at 3:40 and 6:02.]

So not only is Snyder blaming “big government,” but, in the process, he’s also suggesting that regulations actually caused this. According to Snyder, if you can believe it, he actually wanted to move faster in response to what was happening in Flint, but he was told to wait for reports.

And I’m not making this up.

Civil servants, Synder told Fox News today, “delayed our action plan.”

Yup, if only the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule hadn’t slowed them down, they might have actually been able to save some of those kids in Flint from permanent brain damage…

It’s like something out of an Orwellian Koch brother wet dream.

And some on the right, as you might expect, have already joined Snyder in his attempt to reframe the narrative of what happened in Flint and push this version of events. See, for example, this recent tweet from the folks at ALEC, who would like nothing better than to see Snyder-like “reforms” spread across the nation.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 9.42.16 AM

It will be interesting to see how this evolves over time, and which of these two warring narratives comes out on top. It probably goes without saying, but my hope is that, when all is said and done, our experiences in Flint aren’t used to justify a coordinated push for even smaller government and less environmental regulation. Given the state of the world, however, and what we’ve seen over the past few decades, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if people tried. They are, if nothing else, relentless.

[The photo at the top of the page, taken in downtown Ann Arbor, near the Governor’s Main Street condo, comes courtesy of Ann Arbor City Council’s Kirk Westphal.]

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18 Comments

  1. Peter Larson
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 3:01 am | Permalink

    While not at all denying Snyder’s role in creating the problem, I don’t think it is incorrect to note that there were numerous actors at play here. At least from the article Mark linked to, it doesn’t appear that Snyder is trying to shift blame at all, but rather trying to find out why it happened.

    Certainly, the Snyder administration should have acted sooner, noting that they knew something was amiss in July, but didn’t bother to do anything about it until January, but there is still the issue of how the problem came to be, which started back in April, 2014. How did this happen? Is there any evidence that the elected government of Flint would have done things any differently?

    I am as happy as anyone to see Snyder skewered. But all public servants involved need to be skewered along with him for not doing their jobs.

  2. Peter Larson
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    Regarding regulation, it seems that there are a lot of discussions over regulation in ambiguous terms.

    If people are asserting that regulation or bureaucracy had something to do with Flint, then I think it needs to be taken seriously. If there’s nothing there, there is no reason to pursue it, but in my job (as a public employee), there is often so much regulation and the regulation so vague, that people are often put in the position of having to change the story when unexpected events occur or when the situation changes.

    It’s fine to make an ideological case for more regulation, but the nature of that regulation has to be considered. Liberals often don’t seem willing to go that far, which is disappointing. On the converse, of course, conservatives ask for less regulation, often irresponsibly. It is often telling that politicians and the citizenry have these huge debates about regulation, but the voices of the people who have to deal with that regulation on a daily basis are rarely heard.

    The argument, then, isn’t about regulation, but simply about power.

    My comment is meaningless. My existence is meaningless. It doesn’t matter what I say, but I said something.

  3. Peter Larson
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    I apologize. My comments are meaningless. I’m sorry to have wasted space.

  4. M
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Peter, I don’t think anyone is saying that all of the blame for what happened lies with Snyder’s office. To hear Lee Anne Walters tell it, there were a number of bad actors locally – people who accused her of lying and tried to discredit researchers. What people are objecting to is the idea being put forward by Snyder that this happened in spite of the change that he brought to office. He cannot be allowed to say, “Yes, I’m technically responsible because I’m the Governor, but this really happened because civil servants suck.” The truth is much more complicated and he, though his Emergency Manager, played an enormous role.

  5. Peter Larson
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I disagree, there are some very vocal people (not necessarily the author of this blog) are trying to lay all the blame on a single person, because it is politically expedient to do so.

  6. M
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    This would not have happened without the Emergency Manager. Snyder can keep saying that this was the result of career civil servants engaged in “business as usual,” but the facts say otherwise. The civil servants of Flint, believe it or not, had gone well over 100 years without poisoning their people. This, by definition, was “business not as usual.”

  7. Peter Larson
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    Without defending Snyder, the article linked here doesn’t imply that Snyder is deflecting blame on civil servants.

    Again, I’m happy to see him skewered and maybe my reading of the article is different from others’, but it seem that Snyder is fairly clear that he is ultimately responsible.

  8. M
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure how you can listen to his interviews and say “Snyder isn’t deflecting blame on civil servants,” when he clearly is, Peter.

  9. Meta
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Legislation has been introduced to repeal the Emergency Manager law.

    A House Bill introduced Wednesday would effectively repeal Michigan’s emergency financial manager law.

    State Representative and Minority Assistant Floor Leader LaTanya Garrett (D-Detroit) says decision making needs to be returned to the people in the community.

    “We need to return decision-making in our communities to the elected officials that residents voted into office,” said Garrett. “An emergency financial manager is an unelected official who is not accountable to residents, and that is simply undemocratic.”

    The current law allows the governor to appoint an emergency financial manager to have control of a local government’s finances when they believe a city is having financial difficulties.

    “The most foundational aspect of our democracy is electing our local leaders,” said Rep. Jeremy Moss, Vice-Chair of House Local Government Committee. “It’s clear that the governor’s use of the current system of the emergency financial managers have failed us and our residents.”

    Read more:
    http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2016/01/27/legislation-introduced-would-repeal-emergency-financial-manager-law/

  10. Jim
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I have been trying to understand how career civil servants with scientific expertise, primarily in DEQ but also in HHS, helped to create the Flint water crisis and then mishandled it so badly. The Governor’s task force has blamed a culture of technical compliance in DEQ, but that raises the question of why such a culture existed. The last part of this 2013 Chris Savage post, following the second block quote, may explain: http://www.eclectablog.com/2013/06/richard-baird-rick-snyders-transformation-manager-the-governors-enforcer-behind-the-scenes.html
    If this story is correct, then Snyder made it clear to all state officials, not just top level appointees, that their careers depended on carrying out the Governor’s directives regardless of rules and regulations. If this is the case, then Snyder is directly responsible for the failures of these civil servants.

  11. Frosted Flakes
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    The theory that individuals of DEQ were afraid to share their expert opinions/data because Snyder would hurt their careers and the conclusion that it places more blame on Snyder is hard for me to comprehend. What kind of culture makes comprehending that theory and conclusion possible?

    It is impossible for this to be one persons fault.

  12. jcp2
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Contrary to popular perception, the Flint River has been part of the Flint water supply for years. Before the switch, the Flint Water Treatment plant operated 20 days out of the year to pump Flint River water through the system, because it was the backup in the event of the inability of the Detroit Water System to deliver water. The cost and output of this 20 days/year operation was used in the budget calculations for the switch.

    http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/michigan/files/201512/water_report.pdf

    The City of Flint consulted with LAN Engineering to ensure that capacity and quality control measures were met.

    https://www.cityofflint.com/wp-content/uploads/CoF-Water-System-FAQ-1-16-2015.pdf

    My guess is that the Flint Water Treatment plant never treated the water with anti corrosives during the time that they ran the 20 day backup system test, either because of ignorance or laziness. There was no measurable effect because the time frame was short and the treated Detroit water would “fix” the corrosion. LAN Engineering probably assumed or was assured that the water chemistry was adequate, and likely focused on improving the physical aspects of the plant, because that’s what they do. This deficiency would have never been a big deal, except that the primary protection of the Flint water pipes, Detroit water, was removed. Everybody probably just assumed that the job that was done over the 20 day time period of backup services was good enough for 365 service. Nobody was knowledgeable enough to to either question the process carefully, or to find somebody who would question the process carefully, and due diligence was not done effectively.

  13. Jim
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Many people are at fault here; clearly people at DEQ didn’t do their jobs. I’m trying to understand why they failed so badly. If you work in the Office of Drinking Water, your primary responsibility should be to protect the quality of drinking water. What led these public servants to not vigorously enforce the existing rules, and not take aggressive action in response to reports of tainted water?

  14. XXX
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    No one dared question Snyder or the Emergency Manager. The decision had been made and they defended it. From top to bottom, everyone was moving together in lock step. This didn’t happen in spite of Snyder. This happened because of him.

  15. Jeff M.
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I am beginning to despise this man. That is a rare emotion for me. But his craven campaign to blame civil servants for the situation he and his policies created reveals an individual with no moral or ethical compass.That some are beginning to believe his lies (or allow them to go unanswered) only encourages him to think he can get away with it.

  16. maryd
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    This just came to my attention:
    http://www.progressmichigan.org/2016/01/document-snyder-admin-trucked-in-clean-water-for-state-building-in-january-2015/

  17. wobblie
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    The state threw my neighbor in prison for 7 years and fined him $1,000,000 for maliciously violating the Clean Water Act. What made it malicious was that he was told to stop his violations, but he did not. The Synder Administration was notified in February of 2014 that they were in violation of the Clean Water Act and violating the Copper Lead protocols. The Synder Administration response was, you have no way to enforce your findings so take a hike. From February till at least December the Synder Administration was engaging in willful malicious violation of the Clean Water Act. “career civil servants” do not tell the Feds to shove it. They instead run things up the hierarchy, because taking on the Feds is a political decision. All the misinformation and lies to do change that reality.

  18. Jay Steichmann
    Posted January 28, 2016 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Every miscreant High Muckety Muck from King Nebuchadnezzar through the Wizard of Oz down to Rick Snyder will automatically obfuscate and deflect blame. Only those with integrity will say: it was me, I screwed up. I should have known better. But he can’t, because he’s not in charge. He dances to the tune of his corporate puppet masters.

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  1. […] learned very much. The Republicans kept up their attack on the EPA, Snyder kept trying to shift the blame to “career bureaucrats”, and the Democrats did their best to lay everything at the feet of the Governor. So it was really […]

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